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Long standing member Marge Berer on antisemitism, democracy and the Labour Party

There is not just one “Jewish community”: a response to misplaced efforts to shut down political debate and discussion in the Labour Party

by Marge Berer

[This blog was revised on 23 December 2020 to clarify a previously unclear reference to “international law” when I mean international human rights law.]

The amendment to the tabled resolution was: “The CLP regrets in particular the sense of so many Jewish party members, Jewish MPs, and British Jews that Labour had turned away from them due to anti-semitic acts and statements by a small number of party members who do not represent the vast majority of Labour members, supporters, and voters.”

It is beside the point what the original resolution was that led to this amendment being tabled, but it does matter that this amendment was not passed by the meeting as it contradicted the main resolution. What also matters is that it put on the table an issue that is dividing the Party, one that urgently needs to be confronted and resolved. I am very sorry that this “expression of regret” was felt to be necessary. But I am writing this to try and explain why I do not support what it says.

First, let me identify myself. I’m 74 years old, from the USA by birth; I came to live in London in the 1970s, and I have been an active member of the Labour Party since that time. I later became a British citizen, though I’m still seen as a foreigner and still feel like one myself.

I’m Jewish, raised to be religious, with grandparents who were immigrants to the USA at the turn of the last century from four different Eastern European countries. I am not religious, but I identify as Jewish when asked, including when asked for my race – when I tick “White Other” and add “Jewish” on forms.

I’m not religious, but I define much of my political thinking as Jewish, by which I mean I have been strongly influenced by the left-wing politics of many Jewish writers and thinkers, and specifically their emphasis on the overarching importance of justice. I identify the importance of justice as a Jewish concept, though obviously it is not only a Jewish concept. It is very important for me, probably more important than any other single influence on my political views alongside a feminist perspective.

The amendment quoted above identifies the highly unfortunate and widely articulated response of some members of the “Jewish community” in Britain to the Labour Party in the past few years. Nevertheless, it ignores the fact that there are many members of the Labour Party who are Jewish, myself among them, and many other British people, Jewish and non-Jewish, who do NOT think that the Labour Party has turned away from us. Who know that the vast majority of Labour Party members are not anti-semitic, and who believe that the Labour Party has been demonised by people who do not wish the Party well, and who have made accusations of rampant anti-semitism in the Party in order to discredit the Party. There is also no doubt that many good people, Jewish and not Jewish, believe those accusations. And it is a sad fact that when people like me try to explain why this is wrong, we are often not believed and have had doors slammed in our faces.

Anti-semitism exists in our society; it is historically part of many people’s learned prejudices. I grew up with a mother who was very religious, even when she was a child. She was in her teens and twenties when fascism became rife in Europe and Hitler came to power. I was born just after the War. It was pounded into my head from a very young age that I was different, that everyone believed that I was different, Jews and non-Jews alike, that anti-semitism was everywhere and would never go away, and that I could never trust anyone who was not Jewish. I rebelled against this world view as an adolescent, as it horrified me. I read a lot about these issues and have continued to reject this world view with every political bone in my body. I am lucky that my experience in the world has not been reflected in that picture. Nor has it been my experience in the Labour Party – on the contrary. And I am far from an isolated case.

The so-called “Jewish community” (when was the last time you heard talk of the “Christian community”?) is not a monolithic group with only one world view or only one political perspective or only one opinion about everything that is happening in the world. The Jewish Board of Deputies does not represent us all or speak for us all, nor did anyone elect or empower them to do so, officially or unofficially. They are as politically motivated as the rest of us, just as the Pope and every other religious and secular leader, for good or otherwise.

Anti-semitism, like racism, like hate speech, is a form of discrimination whose intention is to cause identifiable harm. That is the reason it is against the law. In the Equality Act 2010, it says that, “by law, [people] must not discriminate against, harass or victimise [people] on the basis of a number of protected characteristics, including race and religion”. This is quoted in the EHRC Report on page 4. The Equality Act 2010 includes “religion and belief” as protected characteristics, among many others such as age, sex, disability, marriage, and civil partnership. It says: “A person (A) discriminates against another (B) if, because of a protected characteristic, A treats B less favourably than A treats or would treat others.” Whether or not specific behaviours are anti-semitic is not just a matter of personal opinion, it is a matter of law.

These issues, as well as well-intentioned but totally inadequate definitions of anti-semitism, have for several years now divided people, causing distress, anger, misunderstanding and despair, both inside and outside the Labour Party.

Keir Starmer and David Evans have attempted to short-circuit (or bury) this problem by dictat, by ordering us not to discuss, query or criticise – let alone reject – the EHRC Report, the IHRA definition of antisemitism, or the so-called ten commandments of the Jewish Board of Deputies – and by suspending a growing list of people and threatening them/us with being kicked out of the Party for disobeying. Yet these conversations are crucial. No one can resolve these disagreements, let alone achieve unity, by taking away the right to question, debate and disagree, let alone by censorship, threats or punishment. This stance is unethical, short-sighted and doomed to failure. But above all, it is missing the point.

The real issue is this: the “Jewish community” has been engaged in a civil war throughout my lifetime, and even before that. Too many people who are not Jewish do not seem to realise this, let alone the seriousness and extent of it. The cause is the existence of profoundly differing political views on the political behaviour and policies of the state of Israel, and whether or not Jewish identity requires unquestioning loyalty to Israel. My whole life as a Jewish person has been affected by this, and no one can nay-say the importance of this in regard to any accusation of anti-semitism today.

As a child, I put pennies in a tin box to plant trees in Israel. A green and fertile Israel was contrasted with the dry and empty desert of all the “Arab” lands. I grew up being told that if I was rejected by my own country because of anti-semitism, Israel was there for me, I was automatically a citizen. Kibbutz life – communal life – was made to sound like heaven, or as close as one could get. All Israeli Jews were heroes and freedom fighters; all Palestinians, all Arabs, were terrorists. And so on and on… The facts are other.

The most important facts underlying today’s contentious debates, as I see it, are these: Israel is a State, with a capital S. Statehood confers certain universal obligations, including those laid down in international human rights law, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which every country that has ratified it must adhere to (see the United Nations website on this subject). That includes Israel, who ratified the ICCPR about 30 years ago. The ICCPR Part I, Article 1.1, says: “All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Israel wants to be seen as a “Jewish state”. But Israel is not a religion, it is a State, and it is not ONLY and never was ONLY a place where ONLY Jewish people were born and live, romanticised in the phrase: “the home of the Jewish people”. Not now, not 100 years ago, and not 4,000 years ago either. Yet Israeli law now says it is – in the 2018 Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People, which says: “The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People” (Basic Principles 1c). This is a gross violation of the ICCPR. Millions of Palestinians were born in that land and have had children there, both before after after Israel gained statehood.

When Jeremy Corbyn led the Labour Party, the Party supported the fact of the right to citizenship of Palestinians who were born in Israel-Palestine and/or born to Palestinian parents, millions of whom have been living as “refugees” in camps and as exiles in Europe, North America and many other countries since 1948 or 1967. No one who knows this history can deny that Israel is violating international human rights conventions with almost complete impunity, under the protection of one US president after another.

That is where the real problem lies today, and it is the basis of the civil war I am talking about inside the “Jewish community” – because some of us, that is, some of us who are Jewish, refuse to condone this state of affairs, while others want everyone else to believe we are “bad Jews” for doing so.

The fact is that Jewish people like me have long been called “self-hating Jews”, which is equated with being anti-semitic. How is it that Jewish people can be accused of and condemned for anti-semitism? My mother called me a self-hating Jew from the time I was an adolescent. Both because I do not practise the religion and because I support the right of Palestinians to their own land, citizenship and self-determination. I have been accused of self-hatred year in and year out for believing in justice. Yet justice, to have any meaning at all, must be available to everyone equally. A very Jewish concept.

By implication, however, if you are Jewish, you cannot hold the political position that human rights matter for everyone in Israel-Palestine just as much as they matter in every other country in the world. This is untenable.

Let me be perfectly clear, the State of Israel must support the human rights of everyone, including those with a just claim to citizenship. I do not support Israel’s claim to be a Jewish State because any State in which only one religious group has a right to citizenship is discriminatory; it is against international human rights law. There are only a few other countries in the world today that claim or seek to be a State based on only one religion – the Vatican, for example. And India, where Narendra Modi is annihilating and displacing and impoverishing millions of Indian and Kashmiri Muslims while the world sits by watching in near-total silence. Read Arundhati Roy’s history of that decades-long tyranny. This is not about being Jewish or Catholic or Hindu or Muslim; it’s about the responsibility of being a State, and about the crime of legalising discrimination that leads to state-sponsored violence and state-sponsored denial of human rights, among which the right to citizenship and to your own land are vital civil and political rights.

Read Edward Said (a Palestinian historian). Read Raja Shehadeh, whose books about walking in the hills of Palestine trace the history of the increasing illegal occupation of Palestinian land – acre by acre, tree by tree, to the point where almost all the land had been stolen by the time Palestinian citizenship was formally revoked. Read the history from both sides of the wall that was built. Then let’s talk again.

If Keir Starmer and David Evans think they can whitewash global politics on their own personal say-so, based on what the Jewish Board of Deputies, the Jewish Labour Movement, the right-wing Jewish media, and certain Jewish MPs tell them – all of whom appear to have in common that they support Israel no matter what Israel does or does not do – they need to think again.

My uncle, who has been dead for many years now, a patriot who fought in the US Army in World War II and who was there to help to liberate the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, always said: “My country: right or wrong.” I can understand why, looking back, because he came home from Germany alive. But that stance is the source of all the silence in the face of all the injustice in the world, including standing up for the value of some human lives while totally rejecting others.

Expelling people from the Labour Party, kicking them out of the Shadow Cabinet, removing the Whip from them, telling us that we cannot discuss or criticise documents that deserve to be queried and challenged, if not downright rejected… these also represent gross injustice. They are not the way forward for the Labour Party, but anti-democratic and suicidal.

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